Italy is a rich cultural center whose history has influenced every aspect of western culture, from art to politics to winemaking.
The south-central European country, lovingly referred to as a boot, is renowned for its architecture, cuisine, scenic landscapes, art, and to a lesser extent, its wine.
Italian wine uses a broad range of endemic grapes that thrive in the region’s diverse Mediterranean microclimates.
To help navigate Italy’s rich wine culture, I’ve compiled a list of Italian red wines that provide a healthy survey of Italy’s red wine industry.
From the piquant Chianti to the rich Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, this list includes both high and low-tier red wines to cover every drinking occasion.
Most Italian wines utilize a hierarchy system wherein different aging and production methods dictate the availability, price, and prestige of a particular wine variety.
Italian Red Wines
Read on to learn more about Italy’s best red wine varieties you can sip and pair them with your favorite Italian dishes.
Chianti is America’s most popular Italian red wine. Chianti hails from Tuscany, Italy.
Chianti is primarily comprised of the popular Sangiovese grape, but may also include small amounts of Canaiolo and other red wine grapes such as Syrah or Merlot.
Chianti’s flavor is a blend of tart fruit flavors and earthy tones with notes of leather and cherry.
Because of Chianti’s relative popularity in comparison to other Italian wine varieties, numerous expressions of the variety exist.
To enjoy the classic flavor of Chianti, I recommend investing in a Classico Chianti like Felsina’s 2017 Berardenga which pairs well with foods like lasagna or meatballs.
Cheaper Chiantis lack the complexity the variety is known for.
Amarone, properly known as Amarone Della Valpolicella, hails from the Valpolicella region, a small agricultural area known for its wine production.
Producing Amarone Della Valpolicella is time, labor, and cost-intensive, making this variety of wine expensive, but also an incredible tasting experience for the money.
Amarone della Valpolicella can be made from four grapes, Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, and Molinara.
Corvina grapes are preferred for Amarone Della Valpolicella because of their complex flavor profile that includes rich flavor notes like brown sugar and fig.
Purchasing a bottle of Amarone is not only an economic investment but also a time commitment, as the best bottles of Amarone are best enjoyed at least 15 years after harvest.
Considering a premier bottle of Amarone can cost hundreds of dollars, I think Bussola’s Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico is an excellent way to sample the pride and joy of the Valpolicella region.
Barolo is a varietal wine made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes in the Piedmont region of north-western Italy. Barolo is a prestigious wine known for its elegant and bold taste.
Barolo is highly acidic with a full body and an exceedingly dry taste. Barolo is floral and fruity and includes expressions of raspberry, cherry, and rose flavors.
Barolo, like Amarone, is a wine whose flavor harmonizes during aging.
Barolo must age for a minimum of 26 months; higher quality Barolo must age for a minimum of approximately four years.
In reality, most Barolo is aged for at least double the minimum recommendations, with some vineyards aging their bottles for as long as ten years.
I recommend a bottle of Boroli Barolo 2016 to experience the bold elegance of Piedmont’s premier wine.
Anyone familiar with romance languages may discern Dolce means sweet, but Dolcetto wine is deceivingly tart and punctuated with peppery flavors.
Dolcetto wine is made from the Vitis vinifera grape that grows exclusively in the north-western region of Italy.
Dolcetto is commonly produced as a layover wine to supplement vineyard income while wines like Barbera mature, making it one of Italy’s less desirable red wines.
Still, Dolcetto is produced to the same high-quality DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) standards as other premier Italian wines like Barbaresco.
I recommend Carlo Ravello & Figli Barbera D’Alba Superiore to discover the underrated charm of Dolcetto.
Montepulciano is a variety of grape second in popularity only to the beloved Sangiovese.
Montepulciano wines are light, yet juicy and feature an economical price point. Montepulciano’s succulent, yet dry profile makes it a perfect complement to savory foods such as pizza.
For a slightly more upscale Montepulciano variety, consider Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. D’Abruzzo denotes a higher standard of quality on the DOCG scale.
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is an excellent choice to begin exploring Italy’s finer red wine offerings.
Versatile, economical, and highly drinkable, I recommend 2017 Il Conte Villa Prandone ‘Marinus’ Rosso Piceno Superiore for a proper Montepulciano experience.
Barbera d’Asti is made from Barbera grapes grown in the regions of Asti and Alessandria.
Barbera d’Asti has a light-bodied, low-tannin, highly acidic profile known for its sophistication and value.
Barbera grapes used in Barbera d’Asti wine are farmed on ‘second-rate’ land. I put quotes around ‘second-rate’ because the land is only second-rate to the impeccable fertility of Asti and Alessandria’s southern-facing slopes.
Because of the Barbera grapes’ second-place growing conditions, Barbera d’Asti is a reasonably priced, robust wine that shares many of the same flavor characteristics as more renowned wines produced from Nebbiolo grapes.
Rosso di Montalcino
Rosso di Montalcino is Brunello di Montalcino’s little brother. Rosso di Montalcino is a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wine produced in Italy’s Tuscany region.
Rosso di Montalcino was developed in response to the long maturation times of Brunello di Montalcino.
The faster maturation times of Rosso di Montalcino mean Sangiovese vineyards have a viable means of income while their prestigious Brunello ages.
Rosso di Montalcino has a fresh, vibrant flavor perfect for semi-formal food pairings and events.
For the best balance of quality and value in a Rosso di Montalcino, I recommend Padelletti Rosso di Montalcino.
Barbaresco is Barolo’s affable counterpart. Barbaresco hails from the rich wine country of Piedmont.
Barbaresco is made from the prestigious Nebbiolo grape farmed on south-facing slopes in the maritime climate from north-eastern Alba up to Barbaresco.
Barbaresco’s elegantly mild profile stems from Barbaresco’s temperate climate and contrasts starkly with its more acclaimed relative, Barolo.
In the commune of Barbaresco, Nebbiolo grapes ripen sooner than in similar climates nearby, leading to a mellower, more refined wine flavor profile.
Although it is expensive, I recommend purchasing a bottle of Gaja Barbaresco 2009 for an authentic expression of the best Nebbiolo grape characteristics.
Brunello, or Brunello di Montalcino, is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes.
Brunello di Montalcino is a DOCG wine from the Tuscany region of Italy prized for its smooth, rich, fruit-forward character profile.
The unique micro-climate of Italy’s Montalcino region means the Sangiovese grapes used in Brunello achieve an advanced state of maturation before vinification; one of the leading reasons Montalcino’s Sangiovese grapes were considered a distinct species of wine grape for hundreds of years.
Brunello is best enjoyed at least a decade after it has reached the market so that the rich complexity of the wine has ample time to harmonize.
Drinking a glass of Brunello should be a luxuriant experience. Before you commit to purchasing a bottle of Brunello, I recommend trying a glass at a reputable Italian restaurant.
I recommend a bottle of Salicutti’s Brunello di Montalcino Piaggione 2016 if you want to take the tasting experience into your own hands.
Gattinara hails from the celebrated wine production region of Piedmont.
Gattinara is made from the esteemed Nebbiolo grape which is exclusively grown in vineyards located on steep south-facing slopes.
Gattinara must be 90% Nebbiolo grapes by volume to receive the coveted DOCG designation.
Prominent tannins and high acidity mean Gattinara’s distinct flavor only improves over time.
Gattinara commands a high market price because of its strict DOCG standards and lengthy maturation process. Expect to spend a handsome amount for a bottle of Gattinara.
For a Gattinara that captures all of the hype of the prestigious Nebbiolo grape, I recommend Antoniolo’s Osso San Grato.
Negroamaro is an economical, high-value red wine with a fruit-dominated flavor profile from the Puglia region of Italy.
Negroamaro wine is made from the Negroamaro grape that flourishes in southern Italy’s temperate and fertile agricultural landscape.
Negroamaro is unpretentious with a jovial, rustic character, like a rough-around-the-edges, lovable uncle.
Negroamaro is unrefined and simple and pairs well with the warm and inviting cuisine of southern Italy.
Negroamaro reflects the sunny, light-hearted region it hails from and pairs perfectly with relaxed outdoor dinner parties.
For a toasty evening spent enjoying good food with even better company, I recommend a bottle of two 2020 Perrini Negroamaro.
Lambrusco is a sparkling red wine variety from northern Italy.
Unfortunately, Lambrusco’s reputation suffered a PR hit in the 70s because of poorly manufactured wines developed to meet market demand.
You may receive derision from wine snobs for purchasing a bottle of Lambrusco, but true wine enthusiasts know that the days of sugary soda-like Lambrusco are behind us.
Lambrusco wine is made from Maestri, Marani, Montericco, and Salamino grapes.
A good Lambrusco will have a dry or mildly sweet profile with cherry, blackberry, and rhubarb flavor notes.
Because of its reputation, you can pick up a quality bottle of Lambrusco for a very reasonable price that will suit most budgets.
I recommend a bottle of Fiorini Lambrusco di Sorbara Corte Degli Attimi 2020 to complement summer picnics or feasts of fried foods such as calamari.
Also hailing from the Piedmont region like Dolcetto and Barolo is Barbera: the wine of the common people.
Barbera’s pedigree is nothing special in the elitist world of wine which is why I love it. It is a wine that perfectly captures the down-to-earth nature of Italian culture.
Barbera wine is made from modest Barbera grape. Barbera has a flexible flavor profile that is both bold and light. Prevalent flavor notes in Barbera wine are cherry, strawberry, and anise.
I recommend a glass of Oddero’s Barbera d’Alba Superiore to unwind with old friends or make friends with other casual wine lovers.
Calabrese wine refers to wine produced in the Calabria region of Italy.
Varieties of Calabrese wines include Pollino and San Vito Di Luzzi, both of which contain Gaglioppo and Greco Nero grapes endemic to south-western Italy.
Pure Calabrese wines are little known outside of their rural home, partially because industrialization never took off in Calabria.
As a region, Calabria is known for producing blending wines for vineyards in northern Italy.
Although Calabrese wines lack international recognition, Calabrese wines feature many of the qualities wine connoisseurs love about Italian wine, including a light body and high acidity.
Calabrese wines pair perfectly with grilled meats and vegetables. Because of their relative obscurity, Calabrese wines are exceptionally priced.
I recommend the 2020 Statti Gaglioppo to experience Calabria’s premier wine grape variety.
Sangiovese is the wine all other reds from Italy are compared with and against.
Hailing from Tuscany, Sangiovese is the most popular wine grape in Italy and arguably the most popular red wine variety as well.
Made from the delicate grape of the same name, Sangiovese wine is dry, tight-bodied, and highly drinkable.
The sensitive nature of Sangiovese grapes allows them to capture the delicacies of their growing environments in their flavor profile, imparting each micro-region of Sangiovese wine production a unique flavor.
I recommend Poggio San Polo 2016 Brunello de Montalcino for an exceptional example of a full-bodied, memorable Sangiovese.
Italian Red Wines
- Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
- Barbera d’Asti
- Rosso di Montalcino
If France is known for the popularity of its wine, then Italy is known for the obscurity of its wine. The unique topography of Italy means the country is pocked with microclimates that lend themselves to rare and distinct grape species.
The diversity of Italy means the country has a wine for every enthusiast, from the laid-back Barbera to the austere Barbaresco, Italian wines are a niche of vinification worth exploring.
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